It wasn't a good night to have a new LT on patrol. Our LT was was out with us, of course- the new guy would be leading the platoon coming to replace us. We were on a mission that could easily turn bad- as it happened, everyones night but ours was bad. We waited around at a Combat Outpost for hours for our Marine attachments to resolve some equiqment issues, cleared our route, and went home. One of our sister platoons ended up MEDIVACing two men on a helicopter after an IED strike, while another route clearance team out of Falluja was hit multiple times, and an EOD team hit a bomb that flipped a Cougar and sent two techs to the hospital.
The new LT asked "Is it always like this?". His eyes had the dawning realization that he was now at war- that he was about to begin a year of one of the most dangerous jobs in Iraq. The "Oh shit" look, we call it. It's the moment when you realize that these heavy armored trucks are not the panacea that Senators and Army trainers make them appear, not when faced with a determined and ingenious enemy. It's what you get when you see something go wrong for the first time, and the guys around you accept it with a quiet prayer and stoic determination, rather than any outward signs of shock or fear. It's the moment that makes you stop and wonder "Oh shit... what did I get myself into?"
I remember when that moment first came for me- it was right after we got to Ramadi. The Transfer of Authority ceremony had just finished, officially putting my battalion in charge of route clearance operations across a broad swath of western Iraq. I saw an old friend from ROTC back in college, and went over to talk to him. He'd been a platoon leader for the last year, and he looked a hundred years old. The last time I saw him was two years prior, just before he left for his final training as an officer before going to his first command. Then, he'd been lively and vibrant and (dare I say it?) he was a little bit of a dork. Always clowning around, that sort of thing. Now, he looked dead, and I knew that the last year had taken something out of him that the years ahead would be hard pressed to put back in.
The circle has turned, now, as it always does. Now, we are the veterans- the calloused, dead-eyed men who just want to turn over the mission and go home. There's so many things that wear men down- the slow, slippery slope of progress, the questioning and lack of support in news from home, the steady churn replacing wounded (and God forbid, dead) men. The lack of sleep, the hectic stress of changing missions, the broken men, broken families, broken children.
I hope these new guys make it through all right, but for now, we just want to go home.